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True criminal justice reform requires family support

True criminal justice reform requires family support
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I’ve known for a long time that something isn’t working in America’s criminal justice system. Despite being a nation founded on the ideals of freedom, liberty and independence, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with approximately 698 out of every 100,000 people in prison at any given time.

We need criminal justice reform to keep people out of prison, make prison sentences more tolerable and constructive and help prepare former prisoners for a return to normal life. Strengthening family ties and increasing family contact are what will make that reform possible. 

Families are a source of strength, personal direction and hope; they’re the essential building block of a free society and a moral culture. It’s hard to think of a single factor that has a larger impact on the future and direction of a person’s life than family. And in times of hardship or pain, family can bring care, relief and comfort.

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But prisoners risk losing touch with their families while in prison. Prisons are often hard to access by public transport, making the trip to visit an incarcerated loved one both financially and logistically challenging. And many families struggle with the emotional difficulties of seeing a loved one in prison. On top of that, visiting hours are brief and phone calls with family members are often prohibitively expensive for inmates.

That breakdown of family connection can have devastating consequences for incarcerated Americans. Losing touch with one’s loved ones and maybe even one’s spouse and children can exact an emotional toll that makes serving a prison sentence almost unbearable. But then there’s the impact of poor family contact and communication on recidivism rates.

Recidivism refers to a formerly incarcerated person’s return to crime. Recidivism rates vary across age and criminal offense, but no matter how you look at it, a shockingly high number of well-meaning American citizens returning to normal life fall back into patterns of criminality shortly after leaving prison. One study conducted by the Department of Justice found that about 44 percent of former prisoners are arrested again within just one year’s time. And that number jumps to about 68 percent within three years and 79 percent within six.

That data should be shocking. But for decades, studies have shown that prisoners who keep in touch with their families while in prison do better upon release and are less likely to return to crime. Anything we can do to build strong family connections for our fellow citizens in prison will go a long way toward reducing the rates both of crime and incarceration in America, while poor family contact will only make things worse.

Even simple, straightforward solutions can have an enormous impact. Flikshop is an excellent example of this. Flikshop converts Instagram messages into postcards and delivers them to inmates in prison, leveraging the ease and convenience of social media to deliver a form of regular, personalized contact from families and friends. Flikshop’s creator, Markus Bullock, was inspired by his own experience in prison, when frequent letters from his mother helped him to survive prison and ultimately flourish as an entrepreneur. That’s why Bullock made it his mission to tear down barriers to regular family contact and ensure more people at our nation’s prisons can benefit from such communication from the outside.

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The technology utilized by Flikshop isn’t complex but the idea behind it is genius. Upon reentering society, prisoners face a host of legal barriers and social stigmas that can prevent them from finding employment. They will need and rely on their families more than ever before. But if family relations atrophy through a lack of communication and contact, prisoners won’t have the robust family support to fall back on when they get released. And that lack of support can easily lead former prisoners back to crime.

What’s more, contact from loved ones and family members can inspire prisoners to live differently while in prison. Prisoners who feel encouraged and uplifted by their families might be more likely to stay out of trouble while behind bars and may have a stronger motivation to improve themselves in preparation for their life after prison. They may even feel driven to participate in the work training and entrepreneurship programs that prisons can offer.

That, too, will help fix America’s problem with over-incarceration. Prison entrepreneurship programs remain one of the most effective means to reduce recidivism rates and improve the outcomes of prisoners; graduates of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, for example, have a recidivism rate of just eight percent. And even though unemployment rates for formerly incarcerated persons are higher than the national average, 100 percent of PEP graduates find employment after being released. A simple thing like a postcard from a mother or father can lead a prisoner to join a program like this and start down a happier, safer and more productive path.

Our criminal justice system needs fixing and families will have to be a part of the solution. We need to devise the programs, policies and technologies that will keep the families of incarcerated persons together. The health and well being of our society and the justice of our prison system hang in the balance.

Timothy Head is executive director of Faith and Freedom Coalition.